Saturday, December 15, 2012

Illume Espresso Bar - Possibly The Best Latte In Ottawa

I think I can boldly say with barely a hesitation that this morning's latte was probably the best I have had in Ottawa.   (* read my additional updates over the first month. There have been some changes.)

Illume Espresso Bar opened this morning at 6:30 am.  They are located on the north west corner of Wellington and Carleton, across from the Metro grocery store. 

When I arrived (not at 6:30) one customer was seated enjoying his java.  I had the well-staffed espresso bar all to myself. This gave me the opportunity to pepper them with my many coffee questions.

Those who know me well, know that my quest for Canada's best butter tart is rivaled only by my search for the world's best latte.

Besides the usual suspects of espresso, latte, cappuccino, etc, they also do pour overs - Chemex,  Clever, Siphon plus the very specialized and exclusive German Walküre.

The espresso bean being ground this morning was the highly regarded Phil & Sebastian from Calgary.  They also plan on offering the 49th Parallel Bean from Vancouver.  Also a big favourite with me.

All drinks are served in the same sized cup - super stylish Walküre too, I might add.  I don't like my latte milk too hot.  They heat it to about 145F. Perfect.  I love a strong latte. They pull a double shot. We are feeling the same vibe.

I was expecting a very good latte. I knew that with the Phil & Sebastian bean I would get an espresso shot with bold, caramel, nutty notes. Their micro-frothed whole milk was in perfect balance. It did not disappoint. Barista Amy made it for me. Not bad for being customer number three on opening day and latte number two pulled from their impressive Mirage machine. A piece of fine Dutch manufacturing.

I've never considered this before, but is it over the top to mention to the latte-art-crafting barista that I'm left-handed? Upside down or not, this heart was full of coffee lovin'.

Seating includes a lounge space, plenty of table arrangements with punchy red, ultra modern metal chairs and bar stools at the counter. As the winter chill was in the air, I was happy to sit in their more private alcove area, away from the front door.

The food display case housed a bushel of large oranges. Not for sale but for freshly squeezed orange juice.  The case is meant for their wide selection of gluten-free products baked from their local east end supplier. The delivery was coming just as I was leaving.

I brought my cup back to the bar to pay and to ask for a spoon to scoop out the gold still clinging to the porcelain. For this 'the best latte in Ottawa' I wanted every last drop.

Update December 17, 2012:
I returned two short days later to have an equally high quality latte (still the Phil & Sebastian bean) and found out they plan to be open every day from 6:30 am to 10:00 pm. (Update: This eventually changed again to be 7 am to 8 pm.) This makes them a great destination stop on the way to work. A latte is $3.53 + tx.

They also sell a wide selection of private label tea.

Update December 20, 2012:
And I am back again on Friday. The third time in week one.  This time they were serving up the 49th Parallel bean.  A lovely latte again by Barista Amy, though I would say I favour Phil & Sebastian.

The display case was brimming with salads from Market Organics, 126 York Street.  Market Organics also provides illume espresso bar with their daily soup.

Update January 3, 2013:
Today I had a decaf latte since I stopped in late afternoon.  Barista Conor told me that it would be Phil & Sebastian's decaf.  I found it a bit thin tasting.  It can be a challenge to get a decaf espresso shot to taste as full-bodied as 'high test'.  The milk was warmer than I am used to. Note to self to mention it next time I am in.

The shelf is sporting JJ Bean Coffee Roasters' Eastside. I didn't see it opening day.  As well there are two selections from Social Coffee Company. Conor tells me that they are using Social primarily for brewing.

Phil & Sebastian beans are there as well but no 49th Parallel to be found.


Update January 4, 2013:
I'm back again because I am tempted to try the JJ Bean Coffee Roasters bean from Vancouver. Sure enough it was in the hopper. Barista Conor and I connect on my milk temperature. Thank you for that. I liked this latte well enough but I still prefer the Phil & Sebastian bean. Barista Amy really spoiled me on opening day!

Update January 10, 2013:
It is a morning visit today. So that means my latte will be in the loving hands of my favourite barista, Amy.

I ask every time, "What bean?" Today it's the Blaser Cafe, a Swiss bean that I have seen on the shelves at Morala Trading. That's a LONG way to come. I don't ask but I wonder about the roast date. It is lovely enough.  A bit acidic. I definitely favour the Phil & Sebastian. No word on when or if it will return. I'm puzzled.


And then the big wham. My latte has gone from $3.53 up to $4. The Cappuccino is also up at $4. New on the board is the Americano and the Machiato. (As a reference point, I consider the size of Illume's singled-sized Walküre cup to be on par with Bridgehead's medium cup, which sells for $3.50.)

Update January 11, 2013:
I pop in again for a morning visit. But no Amy-the-favourite-barista today. Someone new for me. We chat. It sounds like he has been around coffee for more years than he hasn't. Hopefully a good thing. So, "What bean?" The Swiss Blaser Cafe bean. Again. Now I'm really puzzled.  I had some great coffee chats with Fadi (the owner?) in December. I'm missing that. He REALLY knew his coffee. It seems he isn't around anymore. More puzzlement.

Update January 12, 2013:
This morning I pull in with a girlfriend before we head to lunch.  It's Saturday and there is a busy buzz to the place.  Many seats are taken and there are a number of staff on the ready. It is still the Blaser Cafe bean. I long for Phil & Sebastian or 49th Parallel - their original beans on opening day. Barista Conor serves me my latte.  He remembers to watch the heat on mine.  Third times a charm. I prefer my milk at 140F to 145F. My buddy got the regular super hot treatment. Next time she knows to mention it.  I am still wincing at the $4. latte for the far traveled Swiss Blaser Cafe. I find out Barista Amy is gone. Time to regroup.

Update January 16, 2013:
On my way to work and it's an easy pit stop to drop into Illume. A large bag of Phil & Sebastian is on the counter but my barista confirms that it the Swiss Blaser Cafe bean is still in the grinder's hopper.  At least it is good news that Phil & Sebastian is finally back in the shop. Also for sale on the shelves to take home. 

My latte ends up being too hot to sit for my quick visit.  I have it poured into a cup to go and drink on the road.  I confirm I am not a Blaser Cafe bean fan and feel relieved that its days in this shop seemed numbered.  The first month of Illume has not had the consistency I was expecting.  And I still haven't come to terms with the $4. latte.  This little neighbourhood could use a great coffee shop. Here is hoping for good things going forward and that the wrinkles get worked out.

Update January 29, 2013:
Today I had the pleasure of meeting Barista Brad.  He fussed over my Phil and Sebastian latte and was very inquisitive of my coffee peculiarities. I appreciated the attention.

He showed me the family of cups being used now at the coffee bar.  All are the beautiful German Walküre NYNY series.  Brad says the largest on the right is 8 oz and used for the latte (still $4.00).  The second from the right is 6 oz and used for the cappaccino (price dropped back down to $3.50). The second from the left is between 3 and 4 oz and is used for the macciato.And the small pup on the left is for the espresso - single or double shot. Brad also talked about seeing more activity on their Facebook page and on Twitter. A wise decision for a service focused business in this social media world, for sure.

Update February 14, 2013:
This is visit number 11. Illume has been open for two full months now and it seems like they have been in the neighbourhood forever. Today I had the pleasure of meeting Barista Alex.  He was very attentive.  I appreciated that he came to my table later in my visit to serve me with a loyalty card (and offer me a glass of water - nice touch!).  The loyalty card was just recently introduced.  Now the question is, will I remember to use it or even find it in my burgeoning wallet. Of course I ask, what's the bean today?  I find that they have set up two grinders to offer a choice. One was the, you guessed it, Swiss Blaser Cafe. Not my favourite.  Hopper number two held a Colombian bean roasted by Equator Coffee up in Almonte.  I have a soft spot for Equator so that was my pick.  I want my Phil & Sebastian bean though.  It is why I go to Illume.  Alex tells me I'm a day early.  New P&S beans are on there way. Lucky me to get a Valentine Swiss chocolate on the side.

 Have you stopped in yet? What did you think?

1433 Wellington Street West, Unit 111
Ottawa, Ontario
Twitter: Illumecafe
Facebook: illume espresso bar

Mon to Sun: 7 am - 8 pm

Illume Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. Looks delicious! I'll have to try it :) Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

    1. I went back a second time already. ;-) I was looking at your blog. You have babies!! Congratulations. That will make Christmas very different. Much joy to you and the family. (P.S. Bought that pasta machine. Now to make your ravioli.)

  2. Looks like you've unearthed a hit! Do they have café orzo? Drop a hint to them will ya? When I get back to Ottawa this summer I'll check it out.

    1. Sounds like something I need to find out more about. Do you know of anyone in Ottawa doing a café orzo?

  3. Replies
    1. It has been a treat to have them close by on the way to work. I am curious to try them for lunch too.

  4. Best espresso ever in Ottawa ! Will be back to try Latte for sure..

    1. Do you know which bean they were serving when you had your 'best espresso ever'?

  5. I have to agree that this is definitely the best latte in town. I recently went to Australia, where they smother their coffee with love. After getting back I was concerned I would not find an equal in Ottawa. Walking home I stopped into Illume and my problem was solved. Fantastic fantastic fantastic!


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